DOT Report Cites NAFTA Concerns

A report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Inspector General’s Office questions the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s ability to ensure that Mexican trucks entering the United States under terms of the NAFTA treaty are safe. The report noted that the FMCSA had recently published proposed rules to address these issues but urged the agency to finalize and execute a comprehensive plan.

The IG’s report, requested by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., in February was released in May. Following release of the report, Oberstar and 29 other mostly Democratic lawmakers said they would ask President Bush to delay opening the border to Mexican trucks, as he agreed to do following the ruling of a NAFTA panel in February.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association issued a statement in support of the congressmen’s request, but most within trucking still support NAFTA’s trucking provisions, as long as Mexican trucks comply with U.S. safety standards.

“We’ve always favored NAFTA because 85 percent of trade with Mexico is by truck and Mexico is California’s largest trading partner,” said Warren Hoemann, vice president public affairs for the California Trucking Association. “Our concern is that everybody plays by the same rules. The FMCSA’s recently proposed rules are good first steps. I think there is more that can be done.” Hoemann noted that CTA was meeting with FMCSA officials to discuss the issue.

Oberstar and Hollings requested the IG’s office report on four specific items: the percentage of Mexican trucks placed out of service for serious safety violations, the number of inspectors assigned to commercial border crossings and inspections facilities, verification of Mexican carriers’ authority to operate in the U.S., and progress made between the U.S. and Mexico to harmonize safety programs.

According to the report, the primary concerns of the IG’s office are a lack of adequate inspection facilities and the number of full-time inspectors assigned to border crossings. Of the 27 border crossings between the U.S. and Mexico that allow commercial trucks to cross, the only permanent inspection facilities are located in California at Calexico and Otay Mesa. At other sites, inspectors are using temporary facilities with limited parking for truck inspections or for trucks placed out of service. At 19 crossings, there is space to inspect only one or two trucks at a time, while at 20 crossings, FMCSA inspectors do not have dedicated phone lines for validating CDL information.

More facilities and inspectors are “key to ensuring compliance with U.S. safety regulations,” the report said. The IG’s office recommends at least 139 federal inspectors at the U.S.-Mexico border. Currently, there are 13 federal inspectors assigned to the border. The FMCSA has requested another 80 inspectors in its budget for fiscal year 2002. The states also supply inspectors at border crossings.

The report also found a direct correlation between the condition of Mexican trucks entering the country and “the level of inspection.” At the California inspection stations where state inspectors are on duty during all commercial operating hours, the out-of-service rate for Mexican trucks was only 23 percent compared to 36 percent overall out-of-service rate for all border crossings and a 50 percent rate at a crossing in El Paso where neither state nor federal inspectors are on duty during all operating hours. The report also noted that the overall out-of-service rate had dropped from 44 percent in 1997. For U.S. trucks, the out-of-service rate last year was 24 percent.

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